Sunday, October 8, 2023

Mythic Underworld Dungeon Delving Motivations

Given a mythic underworld dungeon that is actually The Underworld, why the heck would PCs want to go there?

The Debtor - Rent, bar tab, wizard college student loans, and/or child support are almost due, and you're allergic to "real work".

The Mad Lad - You're a literal psychopath who knows no fear and thinks exploring the underworld sounds like fun

The Smuggler - You "lost" a shipment of top-quality pipeweed belonging to Don Jobbo the Halfling Godfather.  Surely even his well-dressed goons wouldn't be crazy enough to look for you here.  Roll again for your cover story.

The Merchant - You're looking for new markets to trade with and new goods to import from the overworld.  May or may not ultimately be in the employ of Don Jobbo.

The Gambler - You took a really bad bet and lost, and now there's something in the underworld you need to go find to make good on your end.  Roll again to find out who you lost the bet to.

The Pretender - Aspirant to the throne of the Old High King, you need the royal regalia lost in the underworld to assert your rightful claim.

The Rescuer - You seek to recover the soul of a deceased loved one from the underworld.  Harp optional.

The Lost Soul - Cursed by a wicked sorcerer, your body lives but your soul has been banished to the underworld!  Or so the sorcerer claimed.  You seek to recover your own soul.

The Cultist - You seek to free the Old Ones from their imprisonment in the underworld and bring an end to the rein of the gods of law.  You might want to roll again for a cover story.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice - You seek the lore and relics of the Usurper, an archmage who challenged the gods, met a bad end, and had his personal effects and/or body parts scattered through the underworld in retribution.

The Paladin in Hell - You're on a crusade to slay as many servants of chaos as possible, and where better to do it than in the underworld itself?  Smite and cleave, until it is done.

AD&D 1e PHB, page 23

The Inquisitor - You seek to prevent the release of the Old Ones by thwarting the schemes of their cultists, who surely have an interest in the Underworld where their masters are imprisoned.  You may not actually have any authority but you're not going to let that stop you from doing whatever you deem necessary.

The Dead Man - You have suffered a terrible shame, and are now compelled to go on a quest to die well in atonement, so as to erase the shame from your family name.  How better to die well than boldly facing the terrors of the underworld?

The Sworn Brother - You owe your life to another PC and fully intend to follow them into hell and back.

The Clerk - You have been tasked by the Celestial Bureaucracy with serving legal paperwork to an entity residing in the Underworld (possibly one of the deceased, possibly a demon lord).

The Stranger - You're from a distant time and place and heard there might be a way home through the underworld.  You're still just a 1st-level fighter though, be ye astronaut, caveman, cowboy, or samurai.

The Family Businessman - Your father made his fortune with one big score from the underworld, as did his father before him.  Plumbing the underworld is just the done thing.  You have lots of siblings and cousins, and you had lots of uncles before they all tried their hand at "the done thing"...

The Gentleman Adventurer - Her Majesty's archives regarding the underworld are woefully incomplete; perhaps bringing back extensive notes will finally earn you that knighthood.  Sadly it's been a very long trek full of misfortunes and you find yourself bereft of funds...

The Unforgiving - Someone pissed you off so bad that killing 'em once wasn't enough; you have resolved to scour the underworld to find them and inflict further suffering on them in the afterlife.

The Gourmand - Having grown bored of the delicacies of the overworld, you have come to the underworld to sample its exotic and forbidden foodstuffs, however ill-advised this might be.  I hear the pomegranates are great this time of year.

The Simp - You read too many salacious scrolls and now you got the thirst for that succubussy.  Surely the underworld is the right place to seek them?  Accept no substitutes.

The Supplicant - You've done some bad things and you're pretty sure you're not gonna have a good afterlife.  You have come to meet lower powers and see if you can do them some favors now in return for some favors later.

The Evangelist - Your mission is to bring posthumous salvation to the dead by converting them to the true faith.  Your sect is heterodox and there's much debate over which rites are required for posthumous salvation and whether it's possible at all, but you're not about to let some theorizing scholastics stop you.

The Would-Beast - You despise your human frailty and seek to drink deep of the Well of Chaos to "transcend" it through mutation.

Tables by alignment:


  1. The Pretender
  2. The Rescuer
  3. The Paladin in Hell
  4. The Inquisitor
  5. The Evangelist
  6. The Clerk
  7. The Sworn Brother
  8. The Dead Man


  1. The Debtor
  2. The Mad Lad
  3. The Smuggler
  4. The Merchant
  5. The Gambler
  6. The Lost Soul
  7. The Stranger
  8. The Family Businessman
  9. The Gentleman Adventurer
  10. The Gourmand


  1. The Cultist
  2. The Sorcerer's Apprentice
  3. The Unforgiving
  4. The Simp
  5. The Supplicant
  6. The Would-Beast

Sunday, October 1, 2023

Quantity Begets Quality - 15 Room Dungeons?

Last post's discussion of quantity begetting quality and Dungeon23 got me thinking about dungeon levels.  I've been noodling around with the theory of gauntlet dungeons for checks calendar almost three years (2021 - map generation and wandering lairs.  2022 - disruptive+fodder encounter design.  2023 - thinking about blockers), and I still haven't overcome inertia, because I want what I make to be good.  But this "quantity begets quality" argument suggests that this may be entirely the wrong approach - I should try making lots of potentially-crappy dungeon levels that challenge things and see what sticks.

If one were to approach challenge dungeon construction through the lens of continuous habit, the question becomes "what's a reasonable self-contained minimal unit that I could make a habit of producing, such that I could produce them in quantity?"

I think for a challenge dungeon, it's probably small dungeon levels, not just individual rooms.  A while back I picked up the Mausolean Maze of Mondulac the Mad.  It's an interesting product but I never reviewed it properly.  It's a collection of stocked, tileable geomorphs with a "hedge maze full of undead" theme.  I like its statement of "good vanilla" as an ideal for published products.  I think it has a couple problems though.  The author adopted the constraint that the level map and key much fit on a single pair of facing pages, which forces small maps and short keys.  The most keyed items in any single geomorph is 10, and there are very few (if any) empty rooms.  It just feels very dense, and there are only a couple of 'morphs that support 1st-level characters.  If you stumble in at 1st and actually do random selection when you move from one to the next as suggested, it's going to be a very rough time.

Tileable / composable small levels as a minimum unit is a pretty promising idea.  And in "challenge dungeon" philosophy, each one can challenge one or two tactics.  For a "dungeon dimensions" or "mad wizard did it" funhouse dungeon, tiling in euclidean space is also not required for composability.  Portals and teleporters solve many problems.

So what is the right size?  I think it might be about 15 rooms.  Using B/X's or ACKS' stocking tables, this gets you something like 5 empty rooms (one with treasure), 5 monster rooms (likely one lair), 2-3 traps (one with treasure), and 2-3 specials.  This seems like about the minimum amount of stuff to get a proper stand-alone "OSR dungeoneering experience".  It's enough rooms that it could conceivably be jayquayed, there's enough monsters to maybe pick up some allies against the lair (light faction play), there's likely to be nonzero treasure from the number of empties and traps and maybe the lair.  Sufficient empty rooms to rest in, route through, or mistakenly search for traps.  If you're tiling these, they could easily each be "a lair and its sphere of influence / territory".  Obviously these ratios are a starting point and all parameters are subject to mutation and selection, but it seems about right.

I wonder if such a format is an answer to the Five Room Dungeon meme, which is too small for much jayquaying and usually run very railroady, often quantum-ogre-y, with little interest in player agency...

As for the cadence...  I could definitely see doing a 15-room dungeon level per week.  Spend a night on the concept and encounter table, a night on the map.  The 5 empty rooms are easy, just need a little dressing.  That leaves you with 10 rooms to stock in 5 days, so about two rooms a night, some of which are likely to be pretty trivial.  And if you actually managed a tiny dungeon per week minus sickness/vacation, you're looking at 50 levels a year.  If you take the best 10 of them and glue them together, you've got a 150-room "kilodungeon".  And if your players decide to hare off in some other direction, you've got plenty of "b-sides" material ready to go...

One interesting question that perhaps my old prep logs would answer is - if you're running a game concurrently with trying to do this, would one level a week be enough that you could actually "throw away" a good percentage of it?  If your players burn through 15 rooms a week, and you prep 15 rooms a week, you aren't accumulating any slack for bad experiments.  Maybe this is where the megadungeon comes into play; restocking old areas that players retread frequently might be less work than coming up with new ideas, and the pace of exploration of new areas slows as distances from the entrance increase, so your ability to accumulate a buffer increases over time?

From the logs, it looks like the most new rooms they explored in one session was eight  during the first session, and that tapered down a bit for a while as they went back and forth with a lair, and then picked up again and stabilized around five new rooms per session.  So maybe 15 rooms per week is actually enough to build up a decent lead.  On the other hand, the Dungeon23 approach of one room a day would barely have kept ahead of my old players, provided that the rate of exploration didn't drop off again.

As for actual size of a tile...  I think 16x16 is probably plenty.  Given 15 rooms or so, if the typical size is 30x30, that uses 135 of the 256 squares in a 16x16 block.  So that leaves us with plenty of space for big rooms, long hallways, secrets, etc.  And room to deviate up from 15 rooms, I suppose.  12x12 would be adequate if we were willing to commit to minimal space between rooms.  14x14 might be ideal but it's just such a weird gross number, whereas 256 is pleasingly round.  If I decide I have the wrong tilesize, oh well.  Putting little shim-zones with boring hallways in between tiles seems pretty viable.

I don't know if I want to commit to creating dungeon levels on a cadence, but at the very least embracing the ethos of "don't wait pontificating for perfection, just make stuff and some of it will be good" and fiddling with making levels is probably something I should start doing.

Saturday, September 30, 2023

Poem a Day, Quantity Begets Quality

I read a (pdf warning) really interesting paper recently about writing a poem a day.  It got me thinking about quantity and quality in a lot of things in life besides just writing poems (though I did have a haiku-a-day habit for a while during the pandemic; it helped me mark the passage of seasonal time while basically locked in solitary confinement in an apartment).  One interesting passage:

In the book Art & Fear, they tell a story—which may be true, maybe not—of a university pottery class broken into two halves. One half was told their grades depended on the quality of the one pot they each handed in, and other was told their grades depended on the total weight of all their semester’s pieces. That is, each person in the first group would work however they wanted, but that person’s grade was determined by the quality of a single piece; each person in the second group would work all semester, and at the end each person would put all their pieces on a gigantic scale: 50 lbs and up was an A, 40–50 lbs was a B, etc. The best pieces of course all came from the group going for weight. The reasons are probably that the second group had no reason to fear the artistic process while they were learning craft techniques, and that they were practicing and experimenting through repetition.

But I think one of the most important reasons for their having the best work was that they could select the best piece rather than shepherd it along. You see, the first group could have worked this way too, but they all decided to just focus on making one perfect pot. Which is what we do as poets often.

I suspect that some DMs are tempted to do the same, trying to make one really good dungeon instead of ten dungeons, one of which is actually good.

It's interesting that he doesn't really couch it in the language of habit, though I suspect that once it does become habit the barrier to beginning on any given day is very low.  I kind of wonder if this is how eg Dyson works.  Dyson is incredibly prolific and it has to be a habit.  It also makes me wonder how Dyson picks which maps will get published where and what fraction he considers to be experiments that turned out mediocre / not worth publishing.

To a certain extent this is also the Dungeon23 approach, of making a habit of producing a little bit of a dungeon every day.  Dungeon23, though, seems to not really want to select / discard down to just the good bits at the end, instead throwing them all into a big megadungeon.

I am also reminded of evolutionary algorithms / reproduce-and-select, fuzzing, and distillation.  These are all kinda the same processes; produce lots of stuff, most of which isn't what you want, and then pick out the good bits and work from there.  Stupid generation processes that you do a lot of will still generate good stuff from time to time and it's just a question of separating it out.  And a human producing things will tend to increase quality of the mash over time, in a way that a pot still won't.

It's probably also true of sessions.  If you want to have great games, run lots of games, don't sit there prepping for the perfect game.  If you want to run great sessions, run lots of sessions - many will be mediocre but some will be great.  These are harder because you can't really throw away the bad ones; they still get inflicted on your players.

Possibly also of games/procedures/systems too.  Maybe this is an advantage of the rules-light / approach that I hadn't considered.  When you make lots of very small games, you get to iterate quickly, highlight the stuff that you think is the best, and sort of bury the stuff that turned out mediocre.  Arguably that's kind of how I blog!  Publish first, then link people to the ones that turn out to be relevant or that keep returning to mind, and the ones that nobody cares about just sit there doing very little harm.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Randomized Starting XP

I was thinking the other day - I kind of want to start a game around the 2nd level range.  But I was having trouble settling on the precise XP number.  If you start at 2000 to get fighters to 2nd, MUs are only 1st.  If you start at 2500 to get MUs to 2nd, thieves are already 3rd.  So picking a single ideal numerical solution is hard.

It is also a little weird when all the PCs start with exactly the same amount of experience.  We already admit significant variation between PCs in terms of ability and starting gold - why not XP?  Particularly in an open-table situation, where it's expected that character level will vary within a party.

3d6 * 200 starting XP seems like a promising amount, averaging just over 2000, and never high enough for a fighter or MU to hit 3rd.  The interesting question is whether you roll it before or after committing to a class.  If you let it inform class choice, then you might get some interesting choices, where a stat line which is otherwise mediocre for a particular class gets played as that class because the XP roll is good for it (like low int, high XP to MU) or even worse otherwise (like a low XP roll where you can get 2nd with thief or cleric but nothing else).  I suspect that taking a high XP roll and using it for thief 3 instead of MU 2 or fighter 2 would probably not be a frequently-chosen option.  So this might be a great way to get a pretty consistently 2nd-level starting party, outside of very low rolls that don't even crack 1200.

On the other hand, a simulationist argument in favor of rolling XP after choosing class might be that it would be weird if nobody ever started a 1st-level MU.  Although maybe if you roll less than 1200 XP, where you're at 1st regardless, maybe MU becomes a real option again.  One sleep per day is one sleep per day...

(And then once we're rolling starting XP, clearly we need some rules for risking terrible injuries in chargen in order to potentially gain more starting XP...)

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Mapping and Measuring - Paces

I recently picked up an old used copy of Sleightholme's Better Boat Handling.  I had some trouble with docking this summer and it seemed like it might be a worthwhile read over the winter to build up a set of drills to run in the spring.  I haven't sat down and read it yet but I flipped through and looked at some exercises.  On page 22 it suggested:

Exercise 3: Distance judging

Whenever you are out walking and the opportunity occurs, note objects ahead such as typical two-story buildings, people, cars, gates, etc.  Guess their distance and then count your paces.  It is not merely size of distant objects but detail that gives the clue to distance.  A window, for instance, loses its bars as distance increases, then its rectangular form, and then finally it becomes a dot.

Lack of intuition about distances is a serious problem I have had - many canonical-ish instructions in docking or man-overboard drills measure distances in boat-lengths.  I know how long the boat is in feet, but projecting that out multiple times across the water is more difficult.  So I took note of this exercise and have started playing with it; I can do it even if I can't put a crew together for a given day, or the weather's bad, or whatever.  It seems like it would also be useful for anyone running wilderness encounters.  How much detail can you make out about a group of people and/or orcs at, say, 50 yards with the naked eye? (see also this old post)

The mention of measuring distances in paces also got me thinking about the dungeon game.  If I tell the players that the room is 30' by 40', how did they determine that?  I have never stopped the game to ask my players how they want to measure a room.  The default dungeon exploration speed is low enough that I could definitely see pacing the length and width of the room being viable for getting pretty accurate measurements within the allotted time.  But doing this would also expose you to danger from traps or enemies in the room.  So now I'm wondering whether I just want to give descriptions like "big, longer away from you than it is wide" and "small room" up until they have paced it.  Or give them estimated distances in tens of feet, but with a roll for error, and then if they pace it they can get accurate distances?  idk.

I also think it would be fun to give room sizes and distances in paces instead of feet.  Just like using stone for encumbrance, it's a quaint and evocative unit with a little bit of slop.

As usual, this led down a shallow wikipedia rabbithole, with a couple of interesting findings:

  • Alexander the Great brought specialist pace-counters along with his army to measure distances, and their accuracy was so good that some now think they must have had an odometer.  How much does a specialist bematist demand in monthly wages, I wonder?
  • You know those wheels surveyors use to measure distances?  Another name for them is a "waywiser".  I love it - it's alliterative and very Olde English.  If you put them on your equipment table, definitely use that name.
  • Apparently pace-counting is still used by the military and they use beads on a string to help keep track of large counts.  I did find myself wondering if I were occasionally slipping up with counts up towards a hundred while I was walking my block this morning; these make total sense.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

1e DMG: Further Precedent for Player-Controlled XP Allocation?

I was poking around in the 1e DMG's section on experience points due to a discussion on /r/osr and stumbled across this on page 85:

Division of Experience Points:
How treasure is divided is actually in the realm of player decision. Experience points (x.p.) for slain monsters, however, is strictly your prerogative. It is suggested that you decide division of x.p. as follows:...

Italics mine.  And then the procedure for dividing XP only discusses XP from monsters. Further down on that page there's a discussion of XP from treasure but it discusses only things like lowering the ratio for XP from GP if the party was stronger than the monsters it took the treasure from, the value of magic items, and when XP for treasure is awarded - nothing about how XP from treasure is divided.

I think this could be interpreted in support of my old speculative post about players controlling how XP from treasure is divided through their choice of who to allocate treasure to.  The heading where this note about treasure being divided by players is explicitly about XP allocation.  The existing division procedure only covers XP from monsters, and no procedure for dividing XP from treasure is provided.  I wouldn't say it's clearly Gygax's intent that XP from treasure should be divided as the players choose, but I think it's the most reasonable interpretation of the gaps here.

Tangentially, the other thing that surprised me in the 1e DMG's section on awarding XP was:

If your campaign is particularly dangerous, with a low life expectancy for
starting player characters, or if it is a well-established one where most players are of medium or above level, and new participants have difficulty surviving because of this, the following Special Bonus Award is suggested:

Any character killed and subsequently restored to life by means of a spell or device, other than a ring of regeneration, will earn an experience point bonus award of 1,000 points. This will materially aid characters of lower levels of experience, while it will not unduly affect earned experience for those of higher level. As only you can bestow this award, you may also feel free to decline to give it to player characters who were particularly foolish or stupid in their actions which immediately preceded death, particularly if such characters are not “sadder but wiser” for the happening.

 Gaining XP for dying, rather than losing it!  Wild!

Monday, August 28, 2023

Rival Parties and Replacement Characters

Every now and then there's a discussion about bringing in replacement characters in OSR games.  There was one recently on the reddits that brought this back to mind.  The consensus is that you should find excuses to get new PCs into the game.  But the poster points out that this distorts the resource game, and then people amend their position so that obviously you should have replacement PCs come in with partly-depleted resources.

As for me...  I'm thinking this sounds like an awful lot of DM fiat.  I eagerly await the "rulings, not rules!" in the comments.  But seriously, there are a lot of things that I don't like about the...  3rd?  4th? wave OSR but one thing I do like is the focus on little rules subsystems, "procedures".  See also Arbiter of Worlds' discussion on rulings establishing precedent and evolving into rules.

Anyway.  What would a system for adjudicating the arrival of new PCs look like?

Before designing one, it's worth checking whether we already have such a system in place but have failed to recognize it.  And I think Wandering Monster tables that are heavy on demihumans and "rival" adventuring parties could easily serve this purpose.  I have never had a good explanation of the point of having 30% of B/X's dungeon level one encounter table be demihumans and humans.  But maybe these encounters are intended to be a source of replacement PCs.  Then the deeper you go, the less frequent these encounters become and the harder it becomes to replace your losses in the dungeon.  Using the first level's friendly table to gather reinforcements pairs interestingly with using it as a safe haven to rest in for expeditions down to the second level.  The sharp drop off in potentially-friendly results on the encounter table as you level is interesting - maybe by the time you're going into the third dungeon level, you're expected to have hirelings rather than "living off the land" for replacement characters.  And then again, in the wilderness you have the Men table, but usefully-leveled results vary in frequency by terrain type.

So what's the procedure here?  Roll a random encounter with demihumans or adventurers, get a reaction roll better than Hostile, and then you can smuggle your replacement PC into that game that way?  And maybe they come in with fairly complete resources, but you had to take a significant risk (an encounter roll) to get them.  And if you're a party with multiple members down, maybe you make a bunch of noise to provoke encounter rolls in the hope of friendlies rather than the conventional wisdom of quietly trying to escape.  It's a high-risk double-or-nothing play but...  having that choice, between the quiet approach and the loud approach seems like it could make for some interesting gameplay.

The wildly-diegetic angle here would be to roll NPC parties completely straight, and then if they're not hostile on the reaction roll, allow players to pick an NPC to start playing.  Might be exploitable if you go on "recruiting" expeditions in high-level areas though.

I guess I'm not convinced that some delay on the arrival of replacement PCs is an ultimate evil, particularly if you let players who are out of characters continue to contribute to the party's problem-solving discussions (voicing someone else's henchmen, perhaps).  Particularly if a caller is being used, where people aren't acting out on their own behalf.